NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — She sounded the alarm about a growing crisis inside the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.
But now that DCS caseworker is out of a job.
DCS said Terri Nelson was fired for long list of reasons, not just because she went to the media.
But Terri Nelson said she spoke out because kids are suffering and because she was once in foster care herself.
Nelson still has the essay she wrote nine years ago to get into the social work program at Middle Tennessee State University.
"I was placed in foster care and was given a social worker named Towana" Nelson read.
The very personal paper praises the DCS case worker she had when she went into foster care as a young girl.
"Towana made such an impact in my life," Nelson read.
"It was the warmth of someone just caring," Nelson said before continuing to read from her paper.
"Towana is the reason that I know I want to be a social worker, so I can give to others the way she gave to me," Nelson concluded.
She followed in Towana's footsteps — as a DCS caseworker — a true believer in the work the department does.
"I wanted to give that to other girls that looked like me," Nelson said.
In June, after more than six years on the job, her supervisor called her a "valuable asset," according to a yearly review she showed NewsChannel 5.
But Nelson said she was growing more concerned that the department was failing kids.
Then one early morning in July, she was called into work to watch kids just taken into DCS custody.
There was no place to put them, so they slept on a conference room floor of the DCS office building.
"There were no blankets, there were no pillows, there were no cots," Nelson said.
She took cell phone video of what she saw.
"This is the video, that's a dirty diaper that's balled up," Nelson said pointing to a diaper.
"They're sleeping on the floor. They don't even have blankets. That's demeaning. We just told them they don't matter," Nelson said.
She had voiced concerns about high caseloads, high turnover and kids falling through the cracks to supervisors in past months but felt nothing was being done.
She said this was the last straw.
"It hurt me to the core because at the end of the day, if I had that experience when I came into DCS custody, I wouldn't have chosen to do social work," Nelson said.
So she leaked the video.
It was first reported in the Tennessee Lookout, and it was picked up by media across the state.
Nelson wanted people to see why many so many caseworkers are frustrated that kids aren't getting the help they need and why morale is so low.
"I thought it would, it could, put a target on my back," Nelson said.
"I've never seen caseloads this high, as high as they've been," Nelson said.
We found Davidson County case workers with more than 80, even 90, cases in October.
The problem is people leaving the department and not enough people applying to fill those spots.
"We're not helping, we're unable to help. We're overloaded, we're overworked," Nelson said.
Last month Nelson received a 12-page memo written by DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols detailing why she was being fired.
Among the issues, an internal affairs investigation into a "Breach of Confidentiality" for sending video of "children to a reporter."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you feel like what you did was a breach of confidentiality?"
"No, the children's faces, you could not identify them," Nelson responded.
DCS made it clear she was fired for other reasons beyond the video — including refusing to go to meetings, refusing "to accept reasonable assignments" — which "put children at risk" and put more work on fellow employees.
"It was more that I released the video. They knew I did it," Nelson said.
She has now lost a career she knows is important.
But she feels speaking out is the best way she can help the many vulnerable children in a dangerously overburdened system.
"What's important for me is for changes to occur," Nelson said.
DCS released the following statement when asked about Nelson's termination and high caseloads:
The Department of Children’s Services has continued to work tirelessly to serve Tennessee’s children and families throughout the pandemic, despite facing the same the turnover and hiring challenges experienced by many organizations and businesses, including both public and private child welfare agencies across the state and country. The department’s leadership is very aware of the difficulties that staffing issues have created in some regions across the state and has aggressively taken steps to retain current staff, including a 3.58% salary increase for all case managers this month. This is on top of the July 1 salary increase of 4.25% for case managers who had been with the department for more than one year and the salary increase for all state employees.
Regarding the termination of Ms. Nelson, her termination letter sets out in great detail how she left children in state custody at risk of harm by failing or refusing to complete her assigned work and breached the confidentiality of the children we serve. We cannot and will not tolerate that behavior in our employees. The children we serve and the citizens of Tennessee deserve better. Additionally, complaints and claims Ms. Nelson made against department leadership have been investigated by the Department of Human Resources at the request of Commissioner Nichols, who out of an abundance of caution decided they should be reviewed by someone outside the department. DOHR conducted a thorough investigation into Ms. Nelson’s disability discrimination complaints under the state’s Workforce Discrimination and Harassment Policy. After interviewing relevant parties and reviewing documentation there was no finding of disability discrimination. Additionally, after speaking to Ms. Nelson, DOHR determined it would not investigate her allegations pertaining to race or pregnancy discrimination as her complaints did not fall under the state’s Workforce Discrimination and Harassment Policy.